Libyan rebels close in on Tripoli

Rebels say they now control most of the city of Zawiyah and have cut off the main resupply route for the capital, Tripoli.

Giulio Petrocco/AP
Libyan rebels protect a captured enemy sniper from retaliation of other rebel fighters near Zawiya in western Libya, Saturday. Libyan rebels fought their way into the strategic city of Zawiya west of Tripoli on Saturday in their most significant advance in months, battling snipers on rooftops and heavy shelling from Moammar Gadhafi's forces holding the city.

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Rebel forces in Libya say they have captured most of a key town near Tripoli, cutting of the capital where Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi is clinging to power six months into the NATO-backed rebel uprising that aims to unseat him.

Rebels fought into the city of Zawiyah, just 30 miles from Tripoli, on Saturday. They now say they control most of the city, including the center, though fighting there is reportedly continuing.

They also say they have cut off the road leading to Tunisia, which has been the main resupply route for Tripoli. The rebels claimed to also capture towns to the south and east of Tripoli, tightening the noose around the capital, which is under a NATO naval blockade to the north.

If the rebels are able to hold the territory – they have made gains before, only to retreat under counterattack – it would be a major blow to Qaddafi and his forces.

Battle for Zawiyah

Video from Al Jazeera shows rebel fighters yelling “God is great!” as they enter Zawiyah and tear down the flag of Qaddafi’s forces Saturday.

The Associated Press reports that the fighters fought into the city despite shelling from Qaddafi’s forces, and hundreds of residents rushed out onto the streets to greet them as they pushed into the city Saturday.

Though CNN reports that rebel leaders say 85 percent of the city is under rebel control, clashes are ongoing. Reuters reports that artillery and machine gun fire could still be heard Sunday, and that rebel fighters were wary of Qaddafi’s forces, including snipers. The rebels told CNN that they had cut off the coastal highway, isolating Tripoli.

At least ten rebels died and 20 were reportedly wounded Saturday in the battle for the strategic city. And the AFP international news service reports that NATO warplanes accidentally bombed a tank the rebels had captured from Qaddafi’s forces, killing four of the resistance fighters.

Qaddafi regime disputes rebel gains

Qaddafi government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim denied that rebels had taken control of Zawiyah. The city is “absolutely under our control,” he told a press conference in Tripoli. He said that a “very small group of rebels” tried to move into the city, and small number of residents in the city rose up to support them, but both were easily “dealt with” by forces loyal to Qaddafi.

Qaddafi is not likely to let a strategic city such as Zawiyah fall without a fierce fight. But the AP reports that the rebels, known for rushing to take territory only to retreat headlong when they are counterattacked, seem to have advanced with slightly more caution and planning this time. They set up a rear position on the road to Zawiya, blocking the road and leaving a tank there, to retreat to if necessary, according to the AP.

Rebels on Saturday also attacked Gharyan, a town south of Tripoli also situated on a major road. Qaddafi’s forces counterattacked, but rebels told CNN that they had captured most of the city and took control of a significant amount of ammunition and heavy artillery left behind by the Qaddafi forces.

The rebels also said they had taken the town of Tawargha, east of Tripoli, which had been used by Qaddafi forces to shell Misrata, the oil port city held by the rebels, reports Al Jazeera. The government denied that claim. The opposition forces also claimed to control some residential areas around the key oil port of Brega in the east, where fighting has been stalled.

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